America has always prided itself on being a nation of immigrants, a cultural melting pot. However, in much of today’s media frenzy, it is difficult to remember the deep roots immigration has planted in the history of the United States. For students enrolled in Associate Professor of Economics Judith McKinney and Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Neeta Bhasin’s classes on immigration, however, this history is very much alive. The Economics of Immigration and Immigrant Experiences courses recently returned from an intensive weekend trip to New York City to trace immigration from its beginnings.
“New York City is a quintessential immigrant city,” says Bhasin, who believes that such excursions outside of the Colleges are integral to the deeper understanding of such a complex issue. “A course such as this should not be taught within the four walls of the classroom. This is an opportunity for engaged citizenship. This is an opportunity to apply academic learning to real life experiences and to learn from the outside world.”
“Anytime you can do something that makes students look at coursework through different media, it adds to what they get out of a class,” agrees McKinney. “They’ll have something to refer back to when doing readings or participating in discussion.”
While in New York, the group paid particular attention to the Lower East Side of Manhattan where the first wave of immigration was prominent. A walking tour of the area revealed the history of immigration. Led by graduate students from NYU and Columbia, the tour highlighted the history of landmarks, the area, and the boundaries of each ethnic neighborhood. Students were also given a taste of Chinatown and Little Italy, where they could observe firsthand the ethnic enclaves that they had reflected on in journal entries prior to their trip.
“It was a great experience being able to witness the Chinese culture while being in an enormous American city,” says Bruce Grant ’13. “Also, being able to travel with fellow classmates made it very enjoyable and fun.”
However, the highlight of the trip was a visit to the tenement museum, where the students were exposed to the harsh reality of the life of immigrants living in the city.
“The Tenement Museum was surely an eye-opening scene,” explained Huy Kouan ’14. “Not only did it bring to light history that most people have forgotten, but I also felt the connection to my family’s immigrant backgrounds.”
When students arrived at the museum – a preserved tenement apartment – they were greeted by a young woman who spoke about the absolute poverty and multitudes of hardships immigrants faced at the turn of the century.
“The trip was not only fun, but it was a huge learning experience,” remarks Peter Cruice ’14. “I learned more from a firsthand experience during the tour than I would have by reading books, or listening to presentations. I thought that the trip was a huge success, and it gave me and my fellow classmates a better understanding of the hard times that immigrants had to go through.”
“I think that the most important thing was to make it personal,” says McKinney of the museum. “The tenement museum really helped it seem real all of a sudden. When you’re reading history, it’s a very macro level – this was very individual.”
Bhasin stressed the importance of bringing immigration into a realm that students can connect with on a deeper, emotional level. “I think this helps them to put things in perspective. It becomes real; it foregrounds history and change in ways that helps them to think about these issues,” explains Bhasin. “It helps them to keep from only framing the issues of immigration in terms of legality, security and economics. We are talking about human beings.
Bhasin hopes that trip – and courses – have even more significant implications than simply aiding in an understanding, but rather spark the implementation of this new knowledge. “I hope that students have really learned from this experience,” remarks Bhasin. “Perhaps in light of this, they will strive to come up with a policy that is reasonable, sensible, that takes into account the humanity of people, rather than treat that as outsiders, aliens.”